China transformed by urban migration

January 23, 2012
  • More than half of China's 1.3 billion population live in cities
  • Urbanization rate still relatively low compared to Europe or North America
  • Newly constructed 'ghost towns' a concern

China’s transformation from rice basket to urban jungle has passed a significant milestone.

Back in 1980, fewer than a fifth of China’s population lived in cities. Now, more than half of the 1.3 billion Chinese are urbanites.

In just a few decades the world’s most populated country has seen the largest mass migration in human history. Millions of people have poured into China’s rapidly expanding urban centres. The People’s Republic - once solidly agrarian - has reshaped itself into an urban society driven by mass industrialization.

2011 was the tipping point, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. It was in that year that China’s urban dwellers became the majority, reaching 51% of the country’s population. Coincidentally, that is the same proportion of the world’s population of 7 billion that is now urbanized.

Twice as many Chinese people now live in cities and towns as in the whole of the US.

Urbanisation in China

And the numbers of urban Chinese will continue growing as the rural poor continue to seek better paid jobs in cities. Income for the nation’s city dwellers is more than triple that of its rural residents, reports the Bureau.

It is true that in 2011 income growth for rural residents outpaced that for people in towns and cities for a second successive year, perhaps reflecting government efforts to boost rural economies so as to smooth out the wealth imbalance between countryside and cities that is driving urban migration.

But China’s “ratio of city-dwellers is, if anything, low for an economy at its stage of development,” notes 'The Economist magazine. Advanced industrialized nations in Europe and North America have urbanization rates of 70% or 80%. Further rural-urban migration seems inevitable.

This should mean easier access to jobs, education, healthcare and other goods and services for many millions of Chinese people.

But urbanization on this scale also presents challenges, including how the Chinese authorities will provide homes, transport and public services to those settling in cities.

In some places, they have adopted a “build it and they will come” approach, anticipating future urban migration and constructing towns and suburbs before people have even arrived.

Some argue that this construction boom is part of a Chinese real estate bubble that could burst with disastrous results. They point to the phenomenon of shiny new provincial 'ghost towns' without any residents. Others say that China is thinking ahead and the ghost towns won’t remain empty for long.

Whatever the end result, how China urbanizes will have a huge bearing on China’s environmental footprint and its management of natural resources like food, water and energy.

An urbanizing population also tends to have fewer children, a demographic meta-trend exacerbated by China’s strict enforcement of its one-child policy in major cities. Beacons of China’s urban prosperity like Shanghai are aging fast.

Meanwhile, urban workers are demanding better wages and conditions to keep up with rising property and living costs, which may mean some factories relocating outside China to find even cheaper labor in places like Vietnam or Cambodia, or even replacing workers with robots. As that happens, China's economic model will have to adapt. It has done so pretty successfully so far.

James Tulloch

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